Category Archives: Game Modding

Moddin’ Morrowind

So as I said in my last post on Morrowind (o the shame!), I’ve started playing it, and noticed that it looked really good for the time. And, yes, that’s kind of faint praise. It’s prettier than Daggerfall, in its way, but the graphics clearly haven’t any better than any relatively-early 3D games. It was also an XBox game, after all, and while both that platform and the PS2 could do surprisingly good graphics, a big open-world game like Morrowind means that something’s gotta give.

So while Morrowind looks good for the time, you’re still going to notice a whole lotta flaws. The water doesn’t look great. The buildings are made of a small number of polygons and have really visible seams, as well as low-res textures. The human models aren’t much to speak about, and the less said about the faces, the better. It’s not really a distraction, because it’s an older game. I wasn’t terribly concerned about it. I wanted an authentic experience, warts and all.

Thing is, I was concerned about the bugs. Morrowind isn’t as buggy as Daggerfall, but it does still have a lot of issues. Like Daggerfall, it still has some save corruption issues, and there are a lot of bits where things can easily break if you do something the designers didn’t expect or where they obviously cobbled a system together under serious time and resource constraints. I value authenticity, but there ARE limits, and Bethesda didn’t include the same quality of bug-prevention and bug-recovery tools with Morrowind that they did with Daggerfall. I was uncomfortably reminded of the fact that Daggerfall’s probably unfinishable without its little hacks and fixes.

But that’s the thing about open platforms: you don’t need to rely on the developer. If you have a problem, rest assured that others have as well. If enough people run into your problem, sooner or later someone is going to try to figure out a way to fix the problem too. That’s what happened with Morrowind, where people not only provided bug fixes to the game’s data files, but fixes and optimizations of the Morrowind executable itself.

(As an aside, the code patches are ASTONISHING. A game is fundamentally a piece of software. The executable of a piece of software is the game when you get right down to it. And these modders have taken this game and made a BETTER game, better than its original creators.)

One problem: I didn’t want to jump through the hoops to do all these patches and get this thing working. So I was really happy to discover the so-called “Morrowind Overhaul”. It has an auto-installer that does EVERYTHING for you. It installs the files, configures them, and in a few amusing cases, actually takes over control of the mouse so it can click on exactly the options you need to make all those data and code patches work properly. It was perfect.

Perfect, sure, but it was also gigantic. It’s around five gigabytes of data compressed into a 1.5 gigabyte download for a game that’s maybe half that size. So why’s it so big? Well, because it’s an overhaul, and that means graphics. It didn’t just install these bug fixes; it also installed dozens of other mods that make thousands of changes, improvements, and additions to the graphics of the game.  It installed them all, and then showed me pictures of the various things it could add, if I wanted it to.

After seeing those pictures? Yeah…so much for “authenticity”. This updated Morrowind is gorgeous. Sure, it’s not perfect. It’s still built on an older game. But, well, here are side-by-side comparison shots:

(These are intended to be side-by-side; I’m still working that out. Let me know if it’s not quite sorted out on other browsers.)
Same spots. Same game. But not the same at all. Look at the difference. It’s astonishing. Sure, you can still tell that they’re working from the base of a decade-old title that was already hampered a bit by its Xbox connections. It’s not Crysis. But who cares?  It’s still damned pretty. In some respects it rivals Skyrim. In others, like the water, it probably exceeds it.

It’s not just a texture conversion, either. It’s not even meshes. The modders actually go to the extent of re-rendering the gameworld to extend the viewing distances. Notice how you can see so much farther off in that latter screenshot? How it looks like a real environment, instead of Superman 64? That’s not Morrowind itself. Morrowind‘s engine literally cannot do it. That’s the Morrowind Graphics Extender mod, which has you do an extra out-of-game rendering pass, hijacks the graphics engine, and subs in all those extra areas that Morrowind can’t handle. You can even see it in-game: MGE gives you a hotkey that lets you add and remove those extra areas in real-time.

I do care a lot about authenticity. I do admit to some misgivings about playing a game differently from the way it was originally made. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t really changed the gameplay much, beyond adding in a hotkey that lets you cast while holding a weapon, as you can in all the other Elder Scrolls games. The leveling and stats and whatnot are all still the same. I think I’ve changed up Skyrim more than Morrowind.

In this case, though, I think I’ll stick with the modded version. I might take a tour in the vanilla version just to see what everything looks like, but the experience is compelling enough that I think that it’s worth it.

So, with the modding and preparation over…I can finally get to the game itself.

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